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November 8, 2007 |

By Ted Boynton | Underappreciated Gems | November 8, 2007 |

John Sayles’ companion careers as a writer and director veer strongly to the fraternal-twin variety. The writer responsible for both Men of War and the upcoming Jurassic Park IV has made a habit of self-directing his better stories, including intriguing bits of cinema like Eight Men Out and Passion Fish, not to mention the family classic The Secret of Roan Inish.

In 1996, Sayles assembled a cast of little-known character actors, enlisted old outlaw Kris Kristofferson, and directed his own tale of a dusty Texas border town rescued from the chokehold of a corrupt sheriff by a brave deputy. Sayles’ conceptual masterstroke was to project those archetypes in flashbacks against the modern politics and ethnic strife plaguing the same town forty years later. Like A Simple Plan, the initial Pajiba entry in this category, Lone Star received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay but did a small box office of only about $12 million.

Lone Star also served as a starring vehicle for the wonderful Chris Cooper, a non-traditional leading man playing inscrutable, pinch-faced Sheriff Sam Deeds. Sam’s misfortune is to be the son of Buddy Deeds, the legendary deputy who stood up to vicious Sheriff Charlie Wade, played with chilling glint and malice by Kristofferson. After years of Wade’s shakedowns and violence against the local community, Buddy drove out Wade in the 1950s, then took over as a sheriff that everyone — white, black, or Mexican — could turn to for help. Forty years later, Sam, who never emerged from his father’s shadow, finds the job to be that of a bureaucrat: “I’m just a jailor,” he tells Elizabeth Peña, his high school sweetheart who married another when Sam moved away. Sam, now divorced, tentatively begins to court the widowed Peña, raising the tantalizing possibility of closure for a man with a great deal of unfinished personal business.

When a skeleton and a sheriff’s badge are discovered in the desert, along with a .45-caliber slug that could have come from Buddy’s revolver, doubt arises about whether Sam’s father murdered Wade. As Sam investigates, a landslide of political baggage, racial conflict, and unwanted memories tumbles into motion. At the same time, Sam finds himself mired in local politics, opposing a porkbarrel project at the risk of losing the support that put him in office in the first place.

Sayles adroitly builds the film around Sam’s tenuous position, as his unflinching investigation of Buddy and refusal to play politics display the character more popularly associated with his father, while the same investigation begins to suggest that reliable-yet-pragmatic Buddy was more politically motivated than widely believed. Several interrelated sub-plots illuminate the complex racial dynamics of the community, particularly the relationship between a nearby army base and the local bar that provides the sole nightlife outlet for black residents — and which figured prominently in the showdown between sheriff and deputy forty years earlier.

Lone Star, a dusty, imperfect jewel, does occasionally stumble. The cutting between sub-plots is sometimes jarring, including a tacked-on scene with Cooper’s ex-wife, ostensibly there to allow Cooper to review some old family papers. In reality, the scene exists to shoehorn Frances McDormand into the film. Usually so reliable, McDormand is a tiny disaster here in an awkward cameo — all tics and manic energy that contribute nothing to the story and make Cooper look a bit of an idiot for marrying her. There’s also an odor of Crash-style melodrama that nearly overwhelms the delicate theme of the white and Mexican residents’ battle over who owns the history of their community; “We were here first” versus “We are the majority” quickly wears thin at the high school curriculum meeting.

But while Lone Star wears its opinions about racism on its sleeve, it gets at the routine truths of prejudice in a direct and honest way utterly foreign to someone like Paul Haggis, who believes all scenes involving racism should be shouted. In contrast, while hardly subtle, Lone Star draws its power from a lack of sensationalism and the blunt, habitual way in which its characters wear their racial identities on the surface but don’t blather truisms to carry a point. In one scene, two white army buddies discuss one’s affair with another soldier, who happens to be black. When one friend asks the other if her family approves, he responds that they are so convinced she’s a lesbian, they’ll be happy just to see a man. With gentle sarcasm, the friend chuckles, “It’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.”

While Cooper owns the film, the most startling aspect of Lone Star may be icicle-cool Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds. McConaughey’s only significant role to that time was Wooderson in Dazed and Confused — “all right, all right, all right” — iconic, but hardly hinting at his depth. Here, McConaughey comes off as an early, On the Waterfront Marlon Brando, rendering McConaughey’s later career choices all the more regrettable. With only a judicious few minutes of screen time, doled out in noir flashbacks, McConaughey lets his face and presence give life to a cool, courageous deputy chafing under a corrupt sheriff. McConaughey’s icy-smooth demeanor in the face of Kristofferson’s brutality embodies the heroic young lawman standing between the wolves and every two-bit western outpost in our collective imagination. As Sam explores Buddy’s character through the murder investigation, we also learn that Buddy was a creature of politics and a philanderer — and we are called upon to weigh whether that does or should make a difference in the high opinion of him held by the townsfolk.

Peña delights as well, giving a deep, layered performance as a Latina schoolteacher who crossed at least one forbidden boundary in her schoolgirl romance with the white sheriff’s son. Peña moves gracefully from rationally grounding arguments over ethnic heritage to dreamy mooning on the porch about what’s next for a widowed mother of two. Luminous yet completely credible, Peña mixes reason and passion, balancing Cooper’s chippy, obsessive wrangling with his demons. Perhaps most important, Peña deftly avoids even a whisper of ethnic stereotyping as she paints a detailed picture of a second-generation Mexican-American with conflicted feelings about the community she and her children have inherited.

With Lone Star, however, the story is always the thing, and boy does Sayles deliver. The plot is neat but not facile; satisfying but not pat. Bringing home a dusky tale of small-town ambition, border prejudice, and family secrets, the final half-hour reveals several bends and loops that define these characters as firmly in the grey area between dark fate and a fairytale ending. Kind of like life, that.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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